When It Comes to Communications, Scientists Can Learn a Lot from Policymakers
Remember the GE commercial about Millie Dresselhaus? The commercial creates a hypothetical world in which scientists are celebrated and their achievements publicized. Imagine what the world would be like if scientists had the popularity and media reach of a Kardashian. Wouldn’t the world be completely different?
While I don’t expect to see my favorite scientists get their own reality show anytime soon, I know that there are a few things scientists can do to make a greater impact. Communication skills are foundational to this effort.
To improve my science communication skills, I participate in #SciCommChat on Twitter. You can find it on Twitter at @SciCommClub (while you’re at it, don’t forget to follow Fancy Comma, too!). SciCommChat happens every Wednesday, from 1–2 pm Central time. It’s a weekly Twitter chat about science communication hosted by my colleague Nidhi Parekh. Recently, the topic of the chat turned to communications — and the strategies that are used by scientists versus those used by politicians.
Here’s one of my tweets from the most recent #SciCommChat:
I’ve long talked about the need for greater scientist engagement in policy. Science touches everything around us, yet the vast majority of politicians are not scientists. One way to mitigate this problem is to give scientists the tools needed to participate in public policy. I’ve blogged about how to effectively advocate for science on Capitol Hill at the Fancy Comma blog.
To say that politicians don’t always “get” science can be an understatement. Biomedical research funding, environment, defense, agriculture…science plays an important role in all of these areas and more. As a result, scientists are needed in policymaking to help leverage science for the greater good — to critically evaluate science-based policy, as well as to provide insight on the nitty gritty facts of science that non-scientists may not often think about or readily understand.
While connecting with policymakers is important, scientists and science communicators now have a crucial role to play in the pandemic — as shepherds of crucial and lifesaving science information.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, a new adversary has taken hold which threatens to undermine the national and global response to the pandemic: misinformation.
As Nathalie Santa Maria wrote in #SciCommChat:
Masks and vaccines have become a political bargaining tool. Remember the anti-masker protestors burning masks outside of the Idaho State House? That’s just one example of backlash to COVID-19 precautions. Fake news about how the vaccines supposedly work has proliferated on social media. Nidhi Parekh and I recently debunked some of the myths surrounding the COVID vaccines here.
All of this can be maddening for scientists — and confusing to members of the general public. All around us, people are downplaying the threats of COVID-19, a very real virus which has already killed over 607,000 people in the United States as of writing this article.
The pandemic’s SciComm challenges continue to get more and more complex. The Delta variant, a highly contagious version of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), has run rampant in Missouri and Arkansas. As rare “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19 in vaccinated people emerge, the public may view the vaccines as ineffective, fueling vaccine hesitancy.
People who are on the fence about getting a COVID-19 vaccine may be waiting for more information or simply reluctant to get it before their friends and family do. Sadly, this puts them at greater risk of hospitalization and death if they get this more contagious variant of the virus. The Delta variant is expected to have spread throughout the nation by September.
If there was ever a time when SciComm really mattered … it is now. As Nathalie said during #SciCommChat:
Scientists operate on the assumption that the facts speak for themselves. Politicians, on the other hand, know that facts are useless without proper messaging. In fact, Science and policy appear to be in direct conflict at times in the pandemic.
Scientists could learn a thing or two from politicians when it comes to communications. For many scientists, our preferred mode of communication is the facts and data. The problem is that, while authoritative, raw data does not make for a compelling message.
Nidhi Parekh and I recently blogged about pandemic SciComm — what’s working and what’s not — for Science Talk. You can read our article here. We noticed time and time again that what made for the most compelling and effective messages:
- Made boring, dry facts relatable — answering the question, “why would this information matter to me?”
- Did not talk down to readers.
- Discussed the important details instead of glossing over them.
- Kept things simple.
- Considered the audience’s goals, values, and beliefs.
Politicians have known this kind of stuff for years. To create content that really resonates, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of your audience. Politicians look to the polls or their constituents’ opinions to figure out what people really care about. Scientists don’t really have that ability.
Remember that Members of Congress have their own dedicated staff to deal with social media. Most scientists do not have their own staff whose job is only to tweet, post on Facebook, and the like. So, in the pandemic, many high-profile scientists are now wearing an additional hat: that of science communicator.
Clearly, this is unideal. Shouldn’t all scientists be trained in best practices for communicating their work to the general public?
One could argue that if more scientists were trained in principles of effective SciComm, the scientific community could have been better able to stop the spread of misinformation that has fueled the pandemic’s anti-science backlash.
What will it take for science communications to be as nuanced and effective as political communications? The pandemic has highlighted the need for a science comms ground game as strong as a grassroots political campaign. What can scientists do to get there?
Talking to people and understanding their concerns is one way to refine your message. That’s not too different from what your Members of Congress do at a town hall, or holding political events — they try to figure out what their constituents want. Really listening to people and addressing their concerns is at the forefront of politicians’ minds. They are always seeking feedback from their constituents. Instead of listening to the people who are wary of getting a vaccine developed in less than a year, scientists and science communicators have labeled these people anti-science. This has further served to alienate the non-scientists population — especially since their very legitimate questions about the COVID-19 vaccine have largely gone unanswered by scientists.
Another way to make SciComm effective is to craft science comms that really resonate with the everyday person. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the health-related tweets that have been shared the most don’t include a shred of science. Instead, they use metaphors or interesting visuals to demonstrate a scientific concept simply.
Politicians come up with talking points and messaging for their campaigns. I argue that science communicators should endeavor to do the same. As someone who does this type of comms work for a living, though, I can tell you that it’s not easy. You have to consider both your message and who will hear it. You have to figure out what you REALLY want people to understand. Then, you have to communicate that in a relatable way.
Here’s an example: Think of the last time you heard a politician give a major speech about unemployment. Did they launch into a complicated policy analysis of the U.S. labor market, or did they simply talk about the importance of job creation to support everyday people? Politicians know that words matter. They keep their messages simple and memorable to persuade and inform. They seek to unite rather than divide, via emphasizing shared values.
As shepherds of information, scientists and science communicators have a pivotal role to play. Finding the parallels between science comms and political comms can be useful in the quest to persuade and inform people regarding the evolving science of COVID-19.
The question is: Do SciCommers and scientists know how to say what needs to be said — and can they communicate it effectively?
For an overview of the topics discussed in this blog post, check out Monique’s helpful infographic:
Sheeva Azma (@SheevaAzma) is a freelance science writer and founder of Fancy Comma, LLC. We help explain the complex in simple, compelling terms. Learn more at www.fancycomma.com or on Twitter @FancyComma.